With “Avatar” James Cameron has turned one man’s dream of the movies into a trippy joy ride about the end of life — our moviegoing life included — as we know it. Several decades in the dreaming and more than four years in the actual making, the movie is a song to the natural world that was largely produced with software, an Emersonian exploration of the invisible world of the spirit filled with Cameronian rock ’em, sock ’em pulpy action. Created to conquer hearts, minds, history books and box-office records, the movie — one of the most expensive in history, the jungle drums thump — is glorious and goofy and blissfully deranged.
The story behind the story, including a production budget estimated to top $230 million, and Mr. Cameron’s future-shock ambitions for the medium have already begun to settle into myth (a process partly driven by the publicity, certainly). Every filmmaker is something of a visionary, just by virtue of the medium. But Mr. Cameron, who directed the megamelodrama “Titanic” and, more notably, several of the most influential science-fiction films of the past few decades (“The Terminator,” “Aliens” and “The Abyss”), is a filmmaker whose ambitions transcend a single movie or mere stories to embrace cinema as an art, as a social experience and a shamanistic ritual, one still capable of producing the big WOW.
The scale of his new movie, which brings you into a meticulous and brilliantly colored alien world for a fast 2 hours 46 minutes, factors into that wow. Its scope is evident in an early scene on a spaceship (the year is 2154), where the passengers, including a paraplegic ex-Marine, Jake (Sam Worthington, a gruffly sensitive heartthrob), are being roused from a yearslong sleep before landing on a distant inhabited moon, Pandora. Jake is woken by an attendant floating in zero gravity, one of many such aides. As Jake himself glides through the bright cavernous space, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore, as someone soon quips (a nod to “The Wizard of Oz,” Mr. Cameron’s favorite film). You also know you’re not in the gloom of “The Matrix.”
Though it’s easy to pigeonhole Mr. Cameron as a gear head who’s more interested in cool tools (which here include 3-D), he is, with “Avatar,” also making a credible attempt to create a paradigm shift in science-fiction cinema. Since it was first released in 1999, “The Matrix,” which owes a large debt to Mr. Cameron’s own science-fiction films as well as the literary subgenre of cyberpunk, has hung heavily over both SF and action filmmaking. Most films that crib from “The Matrix” tend to borrow only its slo-mo death waltzes and leather fetishism, keeping its nihilism while ditching the intellectual inquiries. Although “Avatar” delivers a late kick to the gut that might be seen as nihilistic (and how!), it is strangely utopian.
It doesn’t take Jake long to feel the good vibes. Like Neo, the savior-hero of the “Matrix” series played by Keanu Reeves, Jake is himself an avatar because he’s both a special being and an embodiment of an idea, namely that of the hero’s journey. What initially makes Jake unusual is that he has been tapped to inhabit a part-alien, part-human body that he controls, like a puppeteer, from its head to its prehensile tail. Like the rest of the human visitors who’ve made camp on Pandora, he has signed on with a corporation that’s intent on extracting a valuable if mysterious substance from the moon called unobtainium, a great whatsit that is an emblem of humanity’s greed and folly. With his avatar, Jake will look just like one of the natives, the Na’vi, a new identity that gives the movie its plot turns and politics.
The first part of Jake’s voyage — for this is, above all, a boy’s rocking adventure, if one populated by the usual tough Cameron chicks — takes him from a wheelchair into a 10-foot, blue-skinned Na’vi body. At once familiar and pleasingly exotic, the humanoid Na’vi come with supermodel dimensions (slender hips, a miniature-apple rear); long articulated digits, the better to grip with; and the slanted eyes and twitchy ears of a cat. (The gently curved stripes that line their blue skin, the color of twilight, bring to mind the markings on mackerel tabby cats.) For Jake his avatar, which he hooks into through sensors while lying in a remote pod in a semiconscious state, is at first a giddy novelty and then a means to liberation.
Plugging into the avatar gives Jake an instant high, allowing him to run, leap and sift dirt through his toes, and freeing him from the constraints of his body. Although physically emancipated, he remains bound, contractually and existentially, to the base camp, where he works for the corporation’s top scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, amused and amusing), even while taking orders from its head of security, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a military man turned warrior for hire. A cartoon of masculinity, Quaritch strides around barking orders like some intransigent representation of American military might (or a bossy movie director). It’s a favorite Cameron type, and Mr. Lang, who until this year had long been grievously underemployed, tears into the role like a starved man gorging on steak.
Mr. Cameron lays out the fundamentals of the narrative efficiently, grabbing you at once with one eye-popping detail after another and on occasion almost losing you with some of the comically broad dialogue. He’s a masterly storyteller if a rather less nimble prose writer. (He has sole script credit: this is personal filmmaking on an industrial scale.) Some of the clunkier lines (“Yeah, who’s bad,” Jake taunts a rhinolike creature he encounters) seem to have been written to placate those members of the Michael Bay demographic who might find themselves squirming at the story’s touchier, feelier elements, its ardent environmentalism and sincere love story, all of which kick in once Jake meets Neytiri, a female Na’vi (Zoë Saldana, seen only in slinky Na’vi form).
Mr. Cameron has said that he started thinking about the alien universe that became Pandora and its galactic environs in “Avatar” back in the 1970s. He wrote a treatment in 1996, but the technologies he needed to turn his ideas into images didn’t exist until recently. New digital technologies gave him the necessary tools, including performance capture, which translates an actor’s physical movements into a computer-generated image (CGI). Until now, by far the most plausible character created in this manner has been slithery Gollum from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” cycle. The exotic creatures in “Avatar,” which include an astonishment of undulating, flying, twitching and galloping organisms, don’t just crawl through the underbrush; they thunder and shriek, yip and hiss, pointy teeth gleaming.
The most important of these are the Na’vi, and while their movements can bring to mind old-fashioned stop-motion animation, their faces are a triumph of tech innovation, with tremors and twitches that make them immediately appealing and empathetic. By the time Neytiri ushers Jake into her world of wonders — a lush dreamscape filled with kaleidoscopic and bioluminescent flora and fauna, with pink jellyfishlike creatures that hang in the air and pleated orange flowers that snap shut like parasols — you are deep in the Na’vi-land. It’s a world that looks as if it had been created by someone who’s watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau television or, like Mr. Cameron, done a lot of diving. It’s also familiar because, like John Smith in “The New World,” Terrence Malick’s retelling of the Pocahontas story, Jake has discovered Eden.
An Eden in three dimensions, that is. In keeping with his maximalist tendencies, Mr. Cameron has shot “Avatar” in 3-D (because many theaters are not equipped to show 3-D, the movie will also be shown in the usual 2), an experiment that serves his material beautifully. This isn’t the 3-D of the 1950s or even contemporary films, those flicks that try to give you a virtual poke in the eye with flying spears. Rather Mr. Cameron uses 3-D to amplify the immersive experience of spectacle cinema. Instead of bringing you into the movie with the customary tricks, with a widescreen or even Imax image filled with sweeping landscapes and big action, he uses 3-D seemingly to close the space between the audience and the screen. He brings the movie to you.
After a few minutes the novelty of people and objects hovering above the row in front of you wears off, and you tend not to notice the 3-D, which speaks to the subtlety of its use and potential future applications. Mr. Cameron might like to play with high-tech gadgets, but he’s an old-fashioned filmmaker at heart, and he wants us to get as lost in his fictional paradise as Jake eventually does. On the face of it there might seem something absurd about a movie that asks you to thrill to a natural world made almost entirely out of zeroes and ones (and that feeds you an anticorporate line in a corporately financed entertainment). But one of the pleasures of the movies is that they transport us, as Neytiri does with Jake, into imaginary realms, into Eden and over the rainbow to Oz.
If the story of a paradise found and potentially lost feels resonant, it’s because “Avatar” is as much about our Earth as the universe that Mr. Cameron has invented. But the movie’s truer meaning is in the audacity of its filmmaking.
Few films return us to the lost world of our first cinematic experiences, to that magical moment when movies really were bigger than life (instead of iPhone size), if only because we were children. Movies rarely carry us away, few even try. They entertain and instruct and sometimes enlighten. Some attempt to overwhelm us, but their efforts are usually a matter of volume. What’s often missing is awe, something Mr. Cameron has, after an absence from Hollywood, returned to the screen with a vengeance. He hasn’t changed cinema, but with blue people and pink blooms he has confirmed its wonder.
“Avatar” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Gun and explosive violence, death and despair.